Federal court throws out controversial pipeline permit: ‘Speak for the trees’ not for corporations

"We trust the United States Forest Service to 'speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues." 

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A federal appeals court in Virginia threw out a U.S. Forest Service permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this week, claiming that the Forest Service “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

The permit would have let the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a controversial pipeline that will carry fracked natural gas over 600 miles through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, cross the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, including a part of the Appalachian Trail.

Quoting Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, the Virginia U.S. Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit, wrote in its ruling: “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

The ruling continues: “A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources. This conclusion is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

Had the pipeline been allowed to proceed through its intended route it would have damaged the habitats of at least four endangered species. The pipeline would have required clearing a 125-foot path for construction through the forests as well as a 50-foot path around the pipeline for maintenance. According to the Sierra Club, the companies will now have to build 50 to 100 more miles to navigate around the forests.

The court accused the companies behind the pipeline, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and the Southern Company, of rushing through the environmental review process required for such permits. The companies originally proposed two potential routes, both of which cross USFS land but not land controlled by the National Park Service. By doing it this way the companies did not have to get congressional approval for the permits.

However, the judges ruled that the Forest Service does not have the authority to grant permission to cross the Appalachian Trail because the trail itself is under control of the National Park Service and the Interior Department.

According to the court, the decision to grant the permits was “particularly puzzling” and that the events leading up to its approval suggested the project was a “preordained decision” agreed to by both the energy companies and the Forest Service. “The Forest Service approved the pipeline without information it previously determined was necessary to making its decision, and it did so without acknowledging, much less explaining, its position,” the judges wrote.

The Forest Service had initially raised concerns about the impact construction would have on erosion, sedimentation, increased landslide risk and the habitat of the little brown bat, but these concerns were “suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

The same court halted construction of the same pipeline last week until it can rule on permits granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allow the pipeline to be built in the habitat of four endangered species.

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